By Michael R. Shea
After spending a summer studying lesser scaup in Alaska, Cody Davis, a wildlife management student at State University of New York (SUNY) Cobleskill, wanted to start a banding program in his home state.
Back in New York and ready to begin his fall semester, Davis contacted Dr. Michael Losito, a professor and program manager for Wildlife Management at Cobleskill. The pair launched a duck banding program, with the prerequisite that all participants join the new SUNY, Cobleskill chapter of Ducks Unlimited—the only collegiate chapter in New York State.
"After that Alaska trip, I really fell in love with ducks and geese," Davis said. "I wanted to do more, and Professor Losito had the great idea of folding a banding program into a new DU college chapter."
The combination of fieldwork and fundraising has been immensely popular on the college campus, especially among the wildlife management students who are eager for experience in the nitty-gritty of conservation.
"Everyone wants to band ducks," Losito said, "so it became a great tool for introducing students to Ducks Unlimited."
On their first banding outing in the fall of 2012, Davis and a handful of other students trapped six mallards and two wood ducks. Since then the group has banded more than 500 ducks in fall and spring outings. Between trips, they've been active fundraisers and community leaders for conservation.
The chapter has held two successful Outdoorsman's Nights Out. Their holiday parade float, a decked-out duck blind, is a crowd favorite and featured annually in the local paper.
Chapter members also regularly provide free property consultations for landowners interested in wetland conservation. They even held a "Landowner Appreciation Day" as show of gratitude toward landowners who provide access to banding sites. Students trimmed trees, cleared brush, and collected litter.
Chapter members also staff DU information booths at wildlife festivals around the state, and host an annual Greenwings Youth Day on the SUNY, Cobleskill campus.
"I've never seen a chapter work as well together, and as hard as these college students," said Ron Zega, DU regional director for eastern New York. "They're extremely enthusiastic for all the right reasons, and make a real difference with both their field work and their fundraising."
The challenge of organizing a college chapter, Zega said, is that even under the best of circumstances, members will only be involved for four years. More commonly, a college member is active for two or three years, before graduating and passing over the reins. But at Cobleskill, the group is so enthusiastic that turnover hasn't impacted membership numbers, and many members have stayed active with other chapters around the state.
Chelsea Gendreau, the outgoing chapter chairperson, was an active college chapter member and avid bird bander through the Cobleskill program. This past summer she did extensive fieldwork in New Mexico, and is gearing up for a career in conservation. "Being chair gave me a chance to challenge myself and also grow stronger as a leader, which is a quality that I believe employers look for in the real world," she said. "I really love wetland habitats, and the work of groups like DU are preserving them for future generations."
Other Cobleskill DU members have gone on to careers in conservation and biology, or state-level DU positions.
"This chapter is like a farm team for Ducks Unlimited," Zega said. "It's been really rewarding for me to work with them, and to watch so many students graduate into the majors."
Davis, the student who planted the seed for a collegiate DU chapter at SUNY, Cobleskill, is beginning graduate school in Waterfowl Ecology at South Dakota State University. He's thrilled so many others have run with the baton.
"It's a pretty good feeling to see the chapter has taken off as well as it has," he said. "There are many challenges, on the management side, of organizing college kids, so it really says something that they've been so successful."